Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- A top QB prospect to watch on Saturday.
But first, a look at the growing legend of a rookie sixth-rounder ...
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While I know it's jumping the gun to even think about comparing a rookie to the six-time Super Bowl champ, there's no denying that his strong performance through the first quarter of the season has evaluators revisiting their pre-draft notebooks to see if they missed something in the evaluation. Brady, a former sixth-rounder himself, was famously the No. 199 selection in the 2000 NFL Draft, while Minshew went 178th in April. So while the Jags rookie clearly has a long, long way to go before entering Brady's stratosphere as an NFL quarterback, they both came into the league with far less respect than they deserved.
I'll be the first to raise my hand and admit to viewing the former Washington State standout as strictly a QB2 candidate when I closely studied his game. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound passer didn't display jaw-dropping athleticism or arm talent when I watched him at the Senior Bowl. And I wasn't all that impressed with his physical tools when I studied his game on tape during his senior season with the Cougars. Despite Minshew being named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and finishing fifth in Heisman Trophy voting -- after leading FBS in completions (468), pass attempts (662) and passing yards per game (367.6), and ranking in the top five in completion percentage (70.6) and passing touchdowns (38) while throwing just nine interceptions -- I thought he was more of a system quarterback in Mike Leach's high-flying scheme than a potential NFL starter.
Sure, the raw numbers were impressive, and his ability to lead Wazzu to a school-record 11 victories suggested that he could play winning football, but we've seen countless Air Raid alums fail to cut the mustard as pros. And honestly, he appeared to be a one-year wonder after a putting up big numbers in the Pacific Northwest following a nondescript stay at East Carolina. However, I probably didn't give him enough credit for winning a national title at Northwest Mississippi Community College prior to his ECU days. While JuCo ball is a far cry from the NFL, there is something to winning a championship as a first-year starter that speaks volumes about Minshew's winning ways and leadership skills.
Fast-forward to today, and No. 15 has enjoyed an impressive opening month in the NFL, with his poise, confidence and superb management skills standing out. Minshew not only plays like a 10-year veteran from the pocket, but he is a natural leader with a knack for getting the Jaguars (2-2, having won their past two games) to the winner's circle. Part of his success can be attributed to his keen understanding of ball security and the importance of winning the turnover battle. Minshew has only two giveaways on his ledger: an interception against Kansas City and a fumble at Houston. The rookie's responsible play has enabled Jacksonville to keep things close, with the Jags' defense and kicking units routinely creating scoring opportunities.
That said, Minshew has more than done his part, logging four straight games with more than 200 passing yards and a passer rating higher than 97. Moreover, he has completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 905 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt and posting a sparkling 106.9 passer rating. That's quite an impressive stretch by a rookie quarterback still acclimating to the pro game, particularly one who wasn't expected to emerge as a franchise quarterback by the vast majority of evaluators. Keep in mind: Sixth-round picks are considered developmental prospects with an outside shot of developing into front-line starters down the road.
That's why scouts are scouring the tape to see what they missed during Minshew's pre-draft process. Additionally, pro scouts are reviewing his preseason performances to see if he flashed franchise quarterback potential in four exhibition games. Remember, Minshew completed just 56.2 percent of his passes for 468 yards during the preseason, averaging 4.9 yards per attempt and recording a 69.3 passer rating. Those numbers don't pop off the stat sheet and they certainly don't scream franchise potential for a quarterback who is considered undersized by most NFL standards. With Minshew also displaying only average arm strength and talent in those performances, it is hard for me to believe the Jaguars knew what they had in the rookie gunslinger.
"I'm not a big 'Go to the front office' guy," coach Doug Marrone said on Monday during a conference call. "I never have been. My job is to develop players and work with them. But probably, I just didn't know. I wasn't sure. I could have gone either way ... maybe he'll do well."
I appreciate the candor from the Jaguars' head man. After Foles broke his collarbone in the first quarter of the season opener, Marrone didn't know what to expect from his new QB1 based on Minshew's preseason performance in games, but he was optimistic the 23-year-old could succeed based on his practice habits.
"I always said he did a great job in practice, but not the production in the preseason games," he said. "I felt more comfortable [with Minshew] on the practice field."
Given Marrone's thoughts, I believe Minshew's success could be attributed to his coaches clearly understanding his strengths/weaknesses as a player and crafting game plans that elevate his performance.
"The more he goes out there and does the right thing, and throws the ball accurately, and not turning the ball over ... you can continue to give a rookie more on his plate for sure," offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said, via the team website. "There hasn't been much on Tuesday and Wednesday nights when we're game-planning and saying, 'Well, I'm not sure he can handle this.'
"There really hasn't been much of that at all that has come up from a protection standpoint and a scheme standpoint, so we're very fortunate that he's really worked hard to really try to master this offense."
Minshew Mania underscores the importance of finding players who are perfect scheme fits. Say what you want about the Air Raid system, but it features some core components of the West Coast offense -- and those same route combinations show up in the Jaguars' playbook. DeFilippo played a key role in helping Foles lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl title a few years ago by utilizing some holdover strategies from the Chip Kelly era. Concepts like mesh (intersecting crossing routes with a 12-yard sit-down route between the hashes) were pulled straight from Mike Leach's "Air Raid" playbook. This is a route combination Minshew knows like the back of hand, based on his experience directing the offense last year in the Palouse. With DeFilippo willing to feature some crossover concepts prominently in Jacksonville's game plan, the rookie quarterback has settled in as a QB1 despite his late-round pedigree.
With teams searching high and low for the secret sauce needed to identify and develop a starting quarterback, Minshew's success will prompt more coaches and scouts to focus on finding scheme fits with leadership skills and intangibles at the position. Sure, physical traits matter, but it is the intangibles and quality coaching that really help QB1s thrive in the NFL. Just ask Tom Brady.
BEARS DEFENSE: Chuck Pagano's amenability has maximized the unit
It is uncommon for an elite defense to improve after its coordinator leaves to take a head-coaching job, but the Monsters of the Midway are absolutely thriving with a new architect at the helm. I don't intend to slight Vic Fangio's impact on the Chicago Bears' defense during his time in the Windy City, but it is hard to ignore Chuck Pagano's spectacular work since taking over the unit in the wake of Fangio's departure to Denver.
Four games into Pagano's tenure as Chicago DC, the Bears are allowing 11.3 points and 60.5 rushing yards per game. With the ground game kept in check, Chicago has been able to get after the passer (17 sacks) and attack the football (eight takeaways). It goes without saying that this is a small sample size, as we're only a quarter of the way through the season. But thus far, Chicago's defense is even better than its dominant 2018 edition, which yielded 16.3 points and 64.5 rushing yards per game over the first quarter of last season. And Pagano has done this without radically overhauling the scheme that served as the foundation for the unit's greatness. The veteran coach kept the basic terminology of the defensive playbook the same, while also soliciting input from the Bears' defensive leaders throughout the process. Considering the D returned nine starters from last year's group, it was a sensible decision to maintain continuity while sprinkling in a few new wrinkles to elevate the unit. Pagano's amenability has been appreciated by his charges since he first arrived in Chicago.
"He's playing us to our strengths," All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson said back in June, via 670 The Score. "The same thing coach Vic has done with us. We can go back and give him feedback. If we see something or we don't like something, he'll take that into consideration and he'll change a few things around. And that right there is what you need when you come in here, especially with the type of players we got, for us to be able to trust you and vice versa."
Under Fangio, the Bears leaned on a traditional four-man rush, with the burden placed on Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks to destroy pockets with max coverage behind them. With 14 eyes on the ball and a ferocious pass rush quickening the quarterback's internal clock, Chicago's defenders feasted off tips and overthrows down the field.
Despite the unit's success with a fairly conservative approach, the defense has become more difficult to prepare for in 2019, with Pagano willing to add extra rushers to the mix via a variety of straightforward and exotic pressures. The unpredictable approach disrupts the rhythm of the passing game by creating cracks at the point of attack. Whether featuring multiple pass rushers overloading a side or creating a 2-on-1 situation on an isolated blocker, Pagano's clever utilization of blitz pressures can make life chaotic for opposing signal-callers.
When I played defensive back for the late, great Gunther Cunningham, he taught me that blitzes aren't necessarily designed to get a free rusher to the quarterback -- they are really deployed to create 1-on-1 opportunities for the defense's best pass rushers. If a five-star player is given a handful of 1-on-1 chances on a Sunday, he should be able to produce a splash play or two that alters the course of the game.
"Chuck loves to bring pressure and play man coverage behind it," a former assistant on Pagano's staff in Indianapolis told me. "He is creative and aggressive when he has the pieces to come after you.
"Remember, he really got after people when he was running the defense in Baltimore. That's who he is and how he likes to play."
In case you forgot, Pagano directed a 2011 Ravens defense that finished third in total defense, scoring defense and sacks in his lone season as the coordinator. Those Ravens also finished second in rush defense while climbing to fourth in pass defense after finishing 21st the previous season. Considering Pagano's resume and reputation as a pass-defense specialist, it is not surprising to see the Bears' early-season domination, given the pieces that the coach inherited in Chicago. Pagano took over a defense with a dominant pass rusher (Mack), an interior house wrecker (Hicks), an ultra-athletic sideline-to-sideline linebacker (Roquan Smith) and a handful of ballhawks in the back end (most prominently Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson).
To his credit, the wily defensive coach decided to build upon a foundation that suited the skills of his players. Instead of scrapping a successful defense for the sake of integrating his scheme, Pagano kept the system in place and enhanced it with a few wrinkles. Although it certainly helped that he coached with his predecessor and was very familiar with his system (Fangio and Pagano worked together in Baltimore as defensive assistants under John Harbaugh), Pagano checked his ego at the door and did what was best for the team. There's something to be said for that in a league with a bunch of gurus trying to outsmart each other at every turn.
KIRK COUSINS: Apologizing won't help disappointing Vikings QB
While I can appreciate the 84 Million Dollar Man's desire to express remorse for failing to give his WR1a more opportunities to shine as a playmaker, the best way Cousins can show Thielen, WR1b Stefon Diggs and the rest of his teammates that he is accountable is by improving his on-field performance. Keep in mind that frustrations are clearly high in Minnesota right now. Thielen publicly criticized his QB on Sunday before walking the comments back the next day (one day before Cousins' apology). Meanwhile, Diggs' status for Sunday's game against the Giants is suddenly uncertain amid talk that he wants out of Minnesota and colleague Tom Pelissero's report that he's been fined for skipping meetings and practice.
It's going to take much more than an apology to right this ship, and as the player collecting the biggest paycheck in the locker room, Cousins is expected to perform like the best player on the field. After all, he did sign a fully guaranteed contract in March 2018 that made him the highest-paid player in football history. He was supposed to help the team get over the hump after it reached the NFC Championship Game the season before he arrived, but he's been nothing more than average (and well below average, at times) in his 20 games with Minnesota. He has a 10-9-1 record as a starter for the Vikings without a game-winning fourth-quarter or overtime drive to his name during that span.
Although Cousins' completion percentage (69.4%), touchdown-to-interception ratio (33:12) and passer rating (98.1) during his Vikings tenure look solid on paper, it's hard for me to see those numbers as more than empty calories based on the team's struggles with No. 8 at the helm. The Vikings had the 13th-best passing offense last season and missed the playoffs. This season, the club sits in last place in the NFC North while Cousins has the fewest completions, pass attempts and pass TDs among the 24 QBs who have started four games in 2019. It's abundantly clear to anyone following the league that the veteran passer hasn't played up to expectations in Minnesota, and the declining production of Thielen and Diggs is troubling for a team that's committed big money to an aerial attack that should be among the league's best based on the individual and collective talents of the 1-2 punch at receiver.
If you study the tape, you'll see why Thielen and Diggs have every right to be upset with Cousins, who has repeatedly missed or bypassed big-play opportunities in the passing game. Thielen (minus-34) and Diggs (minus-24) have the largest dropoff in targets through the first four games from last season to this season, and their declining impact is one of the reasons the Vikings rank 31st in pass offense (169.0 per game), pass first downs (27) and pass play percentage (47.3%).
That's certainly not the kind of production that you should expect when committing big money and a ton of resources to the passing game.
"He's just a guy," an NFC pro scout told me when I asked about Cousins a few months ago. "He doesn't make his teammates better and he's never won a big game. ... He's put up great stats, but he doesn't strike fear in defenders or a defensive coordinator as a player."
That assessment was prevalent even when Cousins hit the market as a free agent in 2018, but the lack of quality players at quarterback -- along with the importance of the position -- prompt some evaluators to overvalue certain passers with a decent set of numbers on the resume. Given Cousins' disappointing showing in Minnesota, it's becoming easier for folks to understand why the Redskins refused to commit to him long-term, using the franchise tag on him two years in a row before letting him walk in 2018, when some in the football world couldn't understand why they refused to lock up the veteran after watching him closely for six seasons.
It would be understandable if the Vikings are feeling some buyer's remorse for plopping down big money on their QB1, but there's still time for Cousins to make it clear that they were right to seek an upgrade at the position despite being on the cusp of a Super Bowl appearance with Case Keenum in the fold. Cousins, a one-time Pro Bowl selectee, must find a way to connect with Thielen and Diggs downfield, as teams increasingly focus on shutting down a potent running game and dare the Vikings to beat them with the pass.
The locker room is a forgiving place, but players pay close attention to who makes the most money and how those guys perform. When quarterbacks are widely celebrated and sometimes compensated as if they are the only thing that matters on a team, it is hard for players to accept an underachieving QB1 collecting a big check that frequently prevents the team from paying other worthy playmakers.
While Thielen and Diggs have gotten their money -- both have signed extensions within the past 14 months -- and are respected as two of the top pass catchers in the league, they know that careers are fleeting for position players and their ability to continue to command big-money salaries comes down to numbers and performance. With their QB1 unable to feed them consistently on the perimeter, they know their future paydays could take a hit due to declining numbers that aren't a direct reflection of their talent or potential.
So, while it was a nice gesture of Cousins to issue a mea culpa through media channels, I bet Thielen and Diggs would prefer him to simply play better and keep his apologies to himself.
NFL Draft prospect to watch this weekend
Jordan Love, QB, Utah State
Utah State at LSU, Saturday, 12 p.m. ET | SEC Network
If you want to see a QB prospect who's already being compared to Patrick Mahomes, you'll want to check out the Utah State-LSU tilt on Saturday to catch a glimpse of Jordan Love. The Aggies' QB1 is creating quite a buzz in scouting circles as an athletic playmaker with A+ arm talent and intriguing potential as a redshirt junior.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound gunslinger has scouts' attention after torching the Mountain West for 3,567 pass yards and 32 touchdowns (against six interceptions) in 2018, while exhibiting a flair for the dramatic with off-platform throws that showcased his ridiculous arm strength and touch. Additionally, he has earned rave reviews from Utah State's coaches for his leadership, football IQ and toughness as the driving force of an explosive offense that hinges on his performance each week.
Despite a slow start to the 2019 season that's resulted in a 6:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Love has a chance to benefit from Mahomes' success as a previously raw prospect turned NFL MVP.
At Texas Tech, Mahomes was viewed as an ultra-talented player with a sandlot game that consisted of deep shots and scrambles, but he has become an efficient passer capable of playing on or off a script in Kansas City. Although I would suggest Mahomes is in a near-perfect situation with an excellent quarterback developer (Andy Reid) and a star-studded supporting cast (Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and a dynamic rotation of running backs) enhancing his play, there's no denying his impact on the offense as an electric playmaker with the arm talent to make any throw to anywhere on the field.
While I'm not quite ready to put Love in that category, I'm certainly intrigued by his talent due to his outstanding combination of raw tools and alluring intangibles. With a solid performance against an LSU defense that's traditionally loaded with NFL-caliber talent, particularly in the secondary, he can send his stock soaring by captivating the minds of evaluators looking for the next big thing at the position.